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❝ Oh, William! is a story about Lucy Barton’s relationships, especially her time with her ex-husband William. While they are no longer together as a couple they still see each other regularly and often reflect on their shared experiences.
The triumph of this book is the very real way Elizabeth Strout is able to convey the immense comfort and intimacy that comes from having loved someone for such a long time, while so accurately portraying the small irritations and ‘ugh’ moments that emerge within a relationship too.
Amongst some very heavy-hitting books on the shortlist this year, it was nice to read a novel that felt quite nuanced and subtle by comparison. – Suzy
There was something about her that seemed deeply—almost fundamentally—comfortable inside herself, the way I think a person is when they have been loved by their parents.
❝ Oh William! is the third book in the Lucy Barton series, but holds its own as a stand alone read, too. In the first book, My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout examines Lucy’s childhood and relationship with her mother. I have not read the second book but this, the third, is an analysis of her first husband William, but set later in life when both Lucy and William are in their 60s/70s, partnerless and finding both comfort and frustration in each other.
Reading this amongst the other Booker shortlisters, which rely on fables and real events for impact, helped highlight Oh William!’s good old-fashioned story telling techniques and character study mastery. Lucy constantly analyses herself and those around her, though the support characters fill in the gaps with their opinions and commentaries when Lucy fails to. There is a nice plot but the characters are the book’s standout feature.
I really do enjoy character studies and Strout certainly has done an amazing job with Lucy Barton and her husband. They seem like real people to me, complex, clever, flawed and interesting. I know there is another Lucy Barton book on the horizon and I’m already looking forward to that. – Rachel
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❝ The Trees is set in Money, Mississippi and is full of characters with names like Junior Junior, Hot Mama Yeller and Reverend Fondle. The white folk of the town suddenly start turning up dead, savagely beaten and with a black man’s body present, cradling the dead’s severed testicles.
Local and federal authorities get involved unsure if they are dealing with a serial killer or a haunting or someone seeking revenge for historical lynchings that make up a grim part of the State’s history.
The book reminded me of both Catch-22, with its absurdity and The Sellout, with its high level of satirical narrative that made me unsure if I should be laughing or cringing or crying. But what The Trees does do is absolutely lay bare the history of racism and racial violence in the US, with a reminder that issues remain today.
The book starts like a whodunnit, but don’t be fooled, this is not a murder mystery, this is a book where you need to look deeper than the plot. I enjoyed the techniques employed to reinforce the seriousness of the themes. Even the somewhat repetitive nature of the plot highlighted the relentlessness of racial abuse. – Rachel
Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices.
❝ The Trees delivered sucker-punch after sucker-punch leaving me feeling almost worn out with the relentlessness of violence that got close to slapstick at times. What started as a humourous observation of redneck America soon descended into mysterious deaths involving mutilation and gore. But why was the horror I was reading about sometimes comical and nearly always rollicking?
The short sharp interspersion of historical lynching was shocking and provided the context of retribution as a possible reason why so many people were being targeted and killed.
I think when reading a satirical novel there is a risk that the humour can distract the reader from the issue the author is endeavouring to highlight. This was not the case with The Trees – Percival’s Everett’s message is very clearly received. – Suzy
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❝ As I got underway with Small Things Like These the size and simplicity almost lulled me into feeling like this was going to be a book of little consequence. How wrong I was.
We gently follow the thoughtful day-to-day musings of Bill Furlong as he works delivering coal in the Irish town of New Ross during the lead-up to Christmas 1985. Bill has an idyllic life in comparison to many other villagers, however he sometimes experiences a sense of slight discontent with his situation and often struggles to understand why.
These feelings lead him to making a monumental decision, the consequences of which we do not learn and can only imagine.
Another Booker short-lister that has entertained and educated, and has also left me feeling bereft. – Suzy
Before long, he caught a hold of himself and concluded that nothing ever did happen again; to each was given days and chances which wouldn’t come back around. And wasn’t it sweet to be where you were and let it remind you of the past for once, despite the upset, instead of always looking on into the mechanics of the days and the trouble ahead, which might never come.
❝ In New Ross, Ireland a man named Bill Furlong works tirelessly delivering coal and firewood to the townsfolk. It is 1985 and Bill has a wife and five daughters to feed and house. He laments his own upbringing and family connections and though not sentimental about it, he does search for clarity and wonder ‘what matters?’
Furlong makes a discovery at one of his customers’ properties, which tests his courage and prompts further consideration of the past, not only his own but also Irish social history’s, shaped by the complicity of a community. Introducing the latter could have resulted in a moral or overwhelming narrative, but Keegan has introduced this theme in a measured and dignified manner and in only the amount of words required. There is no excess.
It is a short book at 116 pages but there is so much in it. It is both a lovely and heart wrenching book and I enjoyed it immensely. – Rachel
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❝ Glory is an Orwellian retelling of the coup that overthrew Mugabe. All the characters are anthropomorphised animals, with the Old Horse’s character modelled on Mugabe, his wife a donkey, and all other characters various creatures in heels, in queues for food and uploading their thoughts to social media on their smart phones.
They live in Jidada, with a da, and another da, challenging but mostly suffering under the oppressive regime of the Father Of The Nation, only to discover that life post the Old Horse is not as sweet as they imagined.
To be honest I often forgot the characters were animals, when they were tweeting or being abused by soldiers, or when a black citizen was lying beneath a white defender whispering “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”.
But that didn’t negate the effect the book had for me. It was extremely moving, highly satirical and very much a history lesson. When the animality of the characters was clear, when ducks marched by with placards for instance, I guess it deflected the horror of what was happening by removing the humanity from the occasion. Not that animals should be treated this way either, but I felt like the characterisation was a shield to protect us from the true horror that Bulawayo could have put on the page.
This is a very good book. It is dense and intense, and you need to be prepared to give up a little bit of your life for it, but it will be worth it. – Rachel
And yet, another cluster of even worse beasts threw themselves on the ground and filled the air with their stupid grief so that they threatened to drown the sweet song of our joyous jubilation. He’s gone! They’ve removed the Father of the Nation! they cried. Now what’ll become of us without him?! they wept. Because, honestly, us we just weren’t prepared for was for him to rule we all died and left him ruling.
❝ The light-hearted almost comical beginning to Glory was definitely tinged with a slight sense of uneasiness and discomfort. There were some laugh-out-loud moments for me, but with an increasing feeling that This Is Definitely Not Okay.
I also was embarrassed by my own ignorance as I knew moments in this story must be direct references to something, but just what I did not know.
The humourous moments soon became few and far between and the grim reality of living a life under a political dictatorship was revealed to the reader in visceral and devastating ways.
Why was every character in this book an animal?! If it was to lull the reader into a false sense of security that this was going to be a bit of a jovial barnyard tale then this goal was achieved. Similarities to Animal Farm will I’m sure be expanded on by reviewers with more insight than me.
Glory was gripping. The narrator’s urgency and the slow and increasingly violent unravelling of the characters and the political situation kept me completely engaged. – Suzy
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Chosen by Rachel
❝ Alfa and his ‘more than brother’ Mademba are Senglese, fighting for the French in World War I. Seen as ‘chocolate soldiers’ they are considered able to scare the life out of the enemy. After Mademba is fatally wounded and Alfa is morally unable to put him out of his suffering, Alfa undertakes revenge on the blue-eyed enemy, stealthily advancing on them after dark, under cover, and mutilating them.
Though grim, the book has a deeply psychological nature. Alfa’s madness and his deep connection with Madema have blurred lines, introducing the theme of duality, which is reinforced in several ways. Comparisons between the beauty of the body and love are offset against the grotesqueness of war. The moon as God’s witness, watches over all the crimes, including Alfa’s inability to help his friend, and his callous killings of the young German soldiers.
Published originally in 2018 in French, the book won the International Booker Prize in 2021 for translated works.
Temporary madness makes it possible to forget the truth about bullets. Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister. But when you seem crazy all the time, continuously, without stopping, that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers.
❝ This is a short book and opens with Mademba trying to scoop his glistening bowels back into his open gut and begging for his throat to be slit. It is a visceral book, with so many bodily functions and parts highly detailed, the guts on the ground, a women’s sex, a severed hand, somehow develop the characters in a way an excess of words probably couldn’t. I loved this book. It was a slap in the face from the outset and used a unique way to build plot, character and tension and to portray a lesson in morality. I also loved the ending. I thought it was perfect for this tale. –Rachel
❝ Although this book had many moments of horror I read it hungrily as the main character enacted vengeance time and time again for the suffering of someone close to him. This was done partly to assuage his own guilt for his part in the person’s suffering. While collecting severed hands of his victims was a visceral and disturbing way of conveying the particular type of madness and distress he was experiencing, it somehow made so much sense. The author successfully conveyed the absolute futility of war while educating the reader about a time in history I was otherwise ignorant about. A stunning book. –Suzy
❝ The most enjoyable books to me are ones that make me think long after I’ve finished them and that’s exactly what this book did for me. It was not a relaxing read as it was quite brutal and heartbreaking but it did have characters that I felt empathy for and developed some sort of understanding of. Once again I benefited from the research done by Rachel and discovered a deeper meaning to the main characters that had flown over my head (again!) I would be careful when recommending this book as I think it would not be popular due to its violent content. But I loved it. – Jo
Farrar, Straus, Giroux
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Chosen by Suzy
❝ Okay, so The Halfmen of O wasn’t quite the distinguished novel that our bookclub was originally going to read, but upon learning about the grim content of In My Father’s Den it was time to switch to another Maurice Gee classic – albeit a children’s book. The Halfmen of O didn’t feel as well constructed as Under the Mountain, but was still a rollicking read. There were some quite visceral & horrible events, that even as an adult I was quite troubled by. I mean, how terrifying is a Bloodcat!? Very terrifying. While this wasn’t quite the satisfying read, when trying to view through the lens of a child it’s another belter from the legendary Maurice Gee. – Suzy
❝ I never did read this as a child and really wished I did! Reading it now as an adult I felt the story was lacking in depth with character development and plot but had to keep reminding myself it was written for children. Once I let go of this and tried to read through the eyes of an adolescent I enjoyed to easy flow of the novel and the ‘Kiwiness’ of it. Maurice Gee did an amazing job with this good vs evil story and I have no doubt it left many young readers on the edge of their seats! – Jodie
❝ Maurice Gee has an incredible imagination and has conjured up some amazing creatures in The Halfmen of O. I especially liked the stone people who could detect the tiniest amount of light and would suffer if exposed to it. The main characters were simplistic and lacked development which may have been a feature that would go unnoticed with younger readers for whom the book is intended. I enjoyed the story but found it a little short and simple for my taste and was wanting more at the end. – Jo
❝ Cousins Susan and Nick think their summer holiday will be like any other but when Susan falls down a mineshaft and into another world beneath the earth, her cousin goes off after her. Together they battle many interesting and scary creatures, knowing humanity requires their success. The book was reflective of its time, (published 1982) in both its girl needs saving plot *rolls eyes* but also in its creative, imaginative, captivating other world right here in New Zealand. It reminded me how so very clever Maurice Gee is and though I have always enjoyed his general fiction, it’s his children’s books where his forte lies. As children of the 80s we were lucky to have these magical, local stories to read. – Rachel
Oxford University Press
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Chosen by Jo
A young man attempts to discover why his friends have abandoned him
❝ The protagonist of this book is Tsukuru Tazaki, a Japanese man in his 30s who designs railroad stations.
He recalls his younger years, where at high school he had four best friends whose names all include a colour: red, blue, white, black. Tsukuru’s name contained no reference to colour, and the joking about it caused him to consider himself blank, isolated and boring: colourless.
Suddenly, without explanation, his four friends abandon him swearing never to speak to him again. Though troubled and vexed by this, he never seeks to find out why this happened. For 16 years he simply wonders.
Now, in the present, he goes on a mission to find out why, revisiting his lost friends and asking them for their accounts of the abandonment. His quest for the answers takes him as far as Finland where one of the friends now lives.
Let’s say you are an empty vessel. So what? What’s wrong with that?” Eri said. “You’re still a wonderful, attractive vessel. And really, does anybody know who they are? So why not be a completely beautiful vessel? The kind people feel good about, the kind people want to entrust with precious belongings.
❝Murakami often has a theme of mystic realism and characters who have their opposites. At this bookclub meet we discussed these themes and worked out who each character’s complimentary opposite was. It was after this discussion that we realised Tsukuru had much more to him than meets the eye. He wasn’t a boring, straight forward person at all. Murakami’s prose always seems simple to me and flows so well, which is just as well as there is so much else going on if you know to look for it. Not having all the answers made the story all the more interesting as the reader is left to ponder and work out likely scenarios for themselves. – Jo
❝ I really enjoyed the relaxed and easy flow this novel brings and as in usual Murakami style it wasn’t full of flowery and elaborate literature. The plot was not at all complex to follow but was intriguing and quite puzzling at times. Murakami had us pondering what happened with his friend group and why they would cast him out? Were his dreams really dreams or a blur with reality? Colorless Tsukuru is a clever novel that has many hidden layers. A great novel to discuss with your bookie friends. – Jodie
❝ I loved the discussions we had around this book and the different theories and interpretations about what the hell actually happened. The feeling of not quite knowing wasn’t frustrating, it was really interesting to think about the author’s possible reasonings. There were aspects of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage that have not aged well. We are not ready to cancel you just yet Haruki, but you are sailing close to the wind mate. – Suzy
❝ Colorless Tsukuru has many of Murakami’s hallmarks yet wasn’t as out there as some of his others. Yes actions in dreams seem to occur in real life, but no there are no talking cats or portals to other worlds. Yes the characters had intense relationships and over-shared their emotions, but a sense of mystery remained. The links between the names of colour provided a layer of consideration that didn’t overwhelm the narrative. The primary mystery was solved but this raised more questions that had us discussing possibilities for hours. For me this is a perfect kind of Murakami novel with the right level of mystique, craziness and likeable characters. I totally loved it. – Rachel
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Chosen by Jodie
A WWII novel about young victims of the war and the unique ways in which they communicate
❝ During the occupation of Paris a young girl named Marie-Laure loses her sight and relies on a miniature model of the city built by her father to navigate the streets.
Motherless, she and her father end up fleeing to Saint Malo to stay with her uncle and his housekeeper. But soon the bombs start and she finds herself alone in the house, with only a new model of the surrounding area to establish her way.
At the same time a young orphan named Werner is enlisted by the Germans as a solider and proves particularly useful at working with transmitting devices. Asked to hunt out any enemy transmission, Werner refuses to report the sweet voice of Marie-Laure.
Along with the childrens’ stories is that of Marie-Laure’s father Daniel who is a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. In an attempt to hide the location of a large, blue diamond, named Sea of Flames, he creates four replicas. The original is said to protect the owner but kill and maim their nearest and dearest. The Germans are determined to track it down and their investigations lead them to Marie-Laure.
All The Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015.
You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.
❝ I was instantly captivated with this carefully constructed novel by Anthony Doerr. Ultimately Doerr wanted to write a book that reminded us of the magic of radio and liked the idea of a boy trapped listening to a story over the radio. Secondly Doerr had visited Saint Malo and was fascinated by its devastating history during WW2 and thirdly he was compelled to write about the theft of France’s precious artefacts. Over seven years Doerr braided the lives of the characters and his three base ideas together spanning two separate timescales. The scenes were beautifully intricate in their descriptions. Doerr’s focus of the novel was unlike any other WWII story I have read. He gave us a real insight into the sufferings of the children affected. It was both a heartbreaking and heartwarming novel that I would absolutely recommend. – Jodie
❝ What a thoroughly enjoyable page turning story. I think I’ve found my favourite book for the year. I enjoyed the time switching method as we learned more about the realistic characters with the tension rising as the story unfolded. Every word seemed necessary and important with short punchy chapters making it an easy albeit deeply saddening at times, read. The Sea of Flames added another dimension with its supposed curse and mystical nature. I would recommend this book to anyone. – Jo
❝ This was a WW2 novel with a few slightly different twists including a long-lost gem, disabilities, and ground-breaking technology. I found the author’s writing very evocative, particularly the time that Marie-Laurie spent in Saint-Malo with her uncle and his housekeeper. One disappointment for me was the drawn out sexual violence scene – an unnecessarily graphic addition that added nothing of value to the story. – Suzy
❝ I am a fan of personal war stories so this was my cup of tea. I think knowing that war stories are most often portrayals of true events astound and intrigue me. And this is no different, knowing a lost girl and a enslaved boy are breaking rules that could see them killed to keep in touch over the airwaves. I loved the aspect of blindness, of the miniature city and navigating ones away around the truth. This is a lengthy book but the short chapters provide a sense of urgency and though there are many perfect places to stop reading for the night, I hardly wanted to.” – Rachel
Identity comes through as a strong building block for all the fiction shortlisters this year. Misunderstanding of identity, attempts to place ones self in the realms of “normality”, studies of those with identity issues. Not only is this topical but important for writers to showcase the metaphorical and literal exploration of what it means to be ones self.
In Kurangaituku, the protagonist is a bird woman, misunderstood and seen as both a monster and a sex object. She is buried during the great eruption of Taupō and claws her way through the crust of the earth for a new beginning where she longs for love and acceptance.
In A Good Winter the protagonist is a middle aged woman who views her identity and her rights over others as far more privileged than they deserve to be. Her inability to reconcile her identity with the world around her causes her to instil harm and concern to those around her.
The protagonist in Entanglement is a time traveller. His identity is split into fragments spread over three countries and in several different time frames. He wants to return to 1977 to correct a mistake while examining the many parts of his identity and the tragedies that shattered him.
Greta and Valdin, of the eponymous novel, are gay, part Maori, part Russian siblings who constantly analyse what it means to be stretched between several stereotypes. Through their familial, educational and romantic experiences we observe all sorts of identity conflict and misconceptions.
❝ For the first time in all our years of (novice!) book award judging, I want to choose a four way tie. Normally there is at least one book I know will not be in my final line up, but this time every work was compelling and intelligent and meaningful and though I enjoyed each for different reasons I can justify why each should win the top prize!
Kurangaituki for its importance and stunning prose. Entanglement for its intelligence and study of emotion. Greta & Valdin for its accurate representation of New Zealand’s diversity. A Good Winter for its enjoyable exploration of an unstable mind.
I’ve re-written this paragraph several times, stating a preference for a different two or three each time, but can’t bear to leave one of them out! So, I’ll mention only one, and that is the book which I think will have longevity and relevance in years to come. Therefore, I’m picking Kurangaituku for the top gong. But I’ll be pleased whomever wins! – Rachel
❝ These books fell into two categories for me with Greta and Valdin and A Good Winter being so engaging and almost demanding of my time as I tried to sneak as many moments as possible to sit down with them and find out what the characters were up to next. I found both stories utterly compelling.
Whereas Kurangaituku and Entanglement were structurally quite unusual and were also written with such beauty and intelligence. As a reader I also found them less accessible.
I think any of these books are utterly worthy of the prize and geez I cannot bloody wait to hear who’s going to take it out on the night – if I had to make a call though I think Kurangaituku may just do it. – Suzy